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The Australian National University

Seminar | The Strange Nationality of Contemporary Poets


Tuesday, 15 August 2017 - 4:30pm - 5:45pm


Theatrette, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Professor Paul Magee (University of Canberra)


In The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge (1994),  Jacques Rancière takes issue with twentieth century French historians for their practice of explaining peoples’ actions in terms of the habitual practices of those of their milieu and point in time. His particular target is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s micro-history of Montaillou (1975), a medieval village in the Languedoc region in the midst of the Cathar heresy. Through Ladurie’s encyclopaedic account, the villagers’ strange actions become understandable in terms of the social forces acting upon them at that point in time. “The history of mentalities,” Rancière acidly comments, “is possible insofar as heresy is put back in its place, assigned to its time and place” (67). My paper extends a similar consideration to the dishabituation and at times even heresy which contemporary poetry so often embodies and effects. Why, I ask, do we so frequently resort to national labels and locations (“One of Ireland’s best contemporary poets”, “An American poet of the 1950s”, “Born in Spain in 1927, in the province of Cádiz”) when discussing the work of poets? Why, in particular, do we do so when discussing artists whose work seems most to subvert “nationalness” (Anderson 1991: 145) itself? In this fashion I try to put some pressure on the adequacy of titles like The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986) and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009). Are such titles really true to where the poems in their table of contents take place?


Paul Magee is a poet and researcher in poetics at the University of Canberra. He is author of From Here to Tierra del Fuego (University of Illinois Press 2000), Cube Root of Book (John Leonard Press 2006) and Stone Postcard (John Leonard Press 2014). Cube Root of Book was shortlisted for the Innovation Award at the 2008 Adelaide Festival Awards for the Arts, while Stone Postcard was named in Australian Book Review as one of the books of the year for 2014. Paul is currently finishing a monograph entitled Suddenness: On Rapid Knowledge. Based on the author’s research interviews with 30 contemporary Anglophone poets, the book is an exploration of the relation between poetic composition and practices of extemporisation in everyday conversation. This paper explores strands in those same interviews to do with the poets’ relation to place and place-making.

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